Monday, November 11, 2013

Men and Women and a Movement

Last night my husband and I had the privilege of going to the home of Michael Zeldin, Senior National Director of HUC-JIR's Schools of Education. We went for a delicious dinner and stimulating conversation. The topic: "Where Have All the Men Gone? Power and Gender in Reform Judaism."

You know. The light stuff. 

Our conversation was with Stuart Leviton, the President of Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ) and Rabbi David Wolfman, a strategic planning consultant for the MRJ. Stuart is a lay leader and past president of Congregation Kol Ami here in Los Angeles. His aim last night was to inform us about the organization's vision, engage us in a conversation about gender, involvement, and affiliation across North America, and hear our personal narratives with regard to the politics of gender in our work.

The first part of our discussion centered on affiliation writ large. The following questions were put on the table: Why affiliate? Why be a part of a movement; part of a community? It had all of us students - particularly those of us about to graduate - scratching our heads. 

What did they mean, why affiliate? It felt like a wake-up call; a splash of cold water to the face. To ask a group of soon-to-be rabbis and educators a question like that was intentionally provocative. It's sort of like saying to a doctor, "Why see a medical practitioner? I have Web MD." Yet, we knew to listen, respect, and reflect on what they had to say because there was value and truth to all of it.

Our speakers offered the non-surprising but still-alarming-for-various-reasons fact that men are leaving the Reform Movement in droves. Individuals and families and communities and congregations across North America are freaking out. Across the country lay leaders and professional Jews are asking themselves, (as the title of the discussion itself stated) where have all the men gone? Everyone, it seems, is deeply worried. Even as I write this it sounds like the trailer for an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster. 

So, in light of this massive flight of Y-chromosomes from synagogue life, people like Stuart and Rabbi Wolfman are currently engaged in conversations about what all this means: for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), for the day-to-day activities of its functioning North American synagogues, and especially for its youth. (For the record, the URJ's president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, has made youth engagement a top priority during his tenure) 

Stuart and Rabbi Wolfman asserted that in myriad conversations across North America, men feel displaced, unwanted; they feel as though their needs aren't being met. Men feel they have no outlet and that women have taken center stage in the synagogue. Men want a safe space, they want role models, and they want to feel like they have a place in contemporary American Jewish life. 

Okay. Let's take a deep breath. 

First, I very much appreciated what Stuart and Rabbi Wolfman offered us. It was valuable, stimulating, and provided each of us with essential information as we go forth in our careers as Jewish professionals. There was a lot I wrestled with last night, but it was still hugely important that I listen and take it all in. As a future leader of the Jewish community, talking about the alienation of any part of the population is huge. 

What was most challenging about last night was not that they were speaking about the male/female dynamics of contemporary synagogue life. Additionally, what they shared was no surprise; it's a well-known and well-documented fact that since the 1990s a vast majority of HUC-JIR's graduates have been female, resulting in fewer and fewer men being drawn to professional Jewish life. That's had a traceable ripple effect on all areas of the Movement.

No, what was most difficult to swallow was the fact that everything being presented last night appeared from my perspective to be so specific, only focusing on one narrow part of a shift in contemporary American Jewish life. The conversation felt really one-sided: men feel this and it's not good. Men feel left out and we need to not make them feel that way. Men need a place to express their emotions and the synagogues you'll work for aren't cutting it. The end.

In my mind, this should have been a joint conversation with, say, the Women of Reform Judaism. It could have been a more meta discussion incorporating the recent Pew study, or a discussion about Jews' increasing involvement in less established models of Jewish life: for example, the hugely popular IKAR here in LA.

The one-sidedness of the conversation, in a way, alienated me. It left me out as a potential partner in shaping future gender boundaries of Jewish affiliation. It made me feel even more feminine, more womanly, more "other." I believe that approach casts men and women even further apart.

Our world doesn't only exist in solely "male" and "female" terms anymore; gender is a spectrum. And there appeared to be no spectrum present last night; only very stark differences that fell into categories of black and white. It lacked nuance or recognition of the amazing work so many of my colleagues are doing for all Jews: not just men, not just women, but the entire Movement.

Another discussion point was concern over the fact that boys do not have male role models to look up to, and that's resulting in this widespread flight from organized Jewish life. So, maybe it's a generational thing, but when I was growing up I had many role models. I looked up to teachers, rabbis, parents, older friends, camp counselors; you name it. And truth be told, I had role models who were male and role models who were female. I didn't discriminate. I was an equal-opportunity role model seeker. 

Now, today, I have mentors who are male and mentors who are female; some are gay, some straight. They're single, married, partnered, divorced, bald-headed and brunette, some with glasses and some without. They're as diverse as you can get, and not just in physical ways. Why do I gravitate towards them? Because my parents - and those role models - taught me to value what's in a person's soul. Not their gender, not their looks, but who they are

I wonder how this particular conversation on affiliation and involvement might shift if we stopped spending so much time on gender and started looking into the souls of those who lead our synagogues and institutions: male, female, and those in transition. I wonder what would happen if we adjusted this particular conversation to focus on a vision we have for the entire mishpucha (family), which includes within it the widest variety of individuals and family systems imaginable.

As we discussed on Sunday night, what keeps people returning and investing and deepening their relationships to Jewish institutions are depth and quality. Depth and quality lead men and women to connect in ways that matter to them, and those ways are diverse for every single human being. It's not only our job as Jewish professionals to present a deep, rich, and high-quality Judaism accessible through multiple channels; it's our sacred task. 

Gender isn't one sided, and it's not even as simple as what I've presented here. Indeed, it's much more complex. As our guests said to us last night, these conversations are intense and provocative but we should embrace and not fight them, for they help us grow. We will likely never live in a world that is free from gender. It is a part of what we do and who we are. But what we do with these conversations - how we see gender, how it colors our experiences, and where it holds us back from our own self growth - is so tremendously significant. It's our future. And all of us are invested in that. 


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